Environmental Literature

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Sand County Almanac – Environmental Ethics

Sources: What Are They Saying about Environmental Ethics? By Paula Smith and Environmental Ethics edited by Robert Elliot and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold 


John 3: 16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”


·       The telos of the human is a final union with God in eternity.  How will being an environmentalist help you to achieve this purpose for being?  What is the telos of non-human creatures?


“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  —Aldo Leopold (262)


“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.  His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).   The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” 

—Aldo Leopold (239)


“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.  By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.”  —Aldo Leopold (261)



Plato’s Value Theory – According to Plato, body, soul, and society have similar organic structures and corresponding virtues.  The goodness of each is a function of its structure or organization and the relative value of the parts (or constituents of each) is calculated according to the contribution made to the integrity, stability, and beauty of each whole.


Critical Environmental Ethical Issues:


·       What overall vision of the natural world is the most fitting and salutary:  Anthropocentrism? Biocentrism?  Ecocentrism?  For Leopold, a land ethic changes the role of Homosapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.  To Leopold, the keys to an environmental ethics are:  Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem.  Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.” (262)


·       Do beings and things other than humans have “intrinsic value,” or are they more properly assigned “instrumental value”?  Ethical humanists argue that only human beings are rational, or capable of having interests, or possess self-awareness, or have linguistic abilities, or can represent the future.  Thus humans have a higher moral standing than non-humans, and humans thus deserve higher moral consideration.  A conservation system based wholly on economic motives is flawed because most members of the land community have no economic value.  For example, what commercial value do wild flowers and songbirds have?  A conservation system based on economics also falsely assumes that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.

·       Can animals, plant life, land, seas, ecosystems, or nature in general—some of these, or all of these—be said to have “rights”?  Do endangered species have more rights than species that are not endangered?

·       Do humans have moral obligations to any beings other than persons now existent?  That is, can there be obligations to the not yet born or the not yet apparent beings?

·       What is the proper telos of human interaction with other living species and nonliving world?  Teleology is the doctrine that the existence of everything in nature can be explained in terms of purpose.

·       What specific moral choices concerning the Earth environment and its various living beings can be prescribed and proscribed?  


Land Ethic and the Ecological Point of View


·       What is your vision of the world?  Holistic or Atomistic?

·       What is your duty as a moral agent?

·       Do we have any obligations to the land over and above our self interests?


Aldo Leopold


·       How do you view disposal of property?  Is it a matter of expediency or morality? (237)

·       Can a limitation of our freedom of action be a part of our ethics?

·       What metaphor do you use to imagine the environment?  Is it a “balance of nature” or a “biotic pyramid?”

·       Can the land adjust to the changes that humans make to the “order of the universe?” (255)


Eco-Ethics and the Catholic Magisterium


Gaudium et Spes (from Vatican II)


·       The human is by his or her innermost nature a social being made in God’s image (imago Dei), given dominion over all earthly creatures with a right to subdue them and use them to God’s Glory.  In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II asserts that humans should “dominate the earth” equitably.  Dominion is being a cooperator with God in the work of creation.

·       Because of the “Fall,” man has fallen out of harmony with himself, with others, and with all created things.

·       We are called to attend to and advance the universal common good.

·       Humans need to be reminded that caring for and cultivating the Earth is a human obligation.  This is a part of God’s design.

·       Modern warfare is seen as a crime and an abomination.  In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II states that murderous violence profoundly changes the environment.  The land itself becomes desolate and fruitless as a result of human violence.

·       Actions which smack of deliberate Earth-devastation are seen as ungodly and anti-human.


Themes of the Catechism of the Catholic Church


·       A vision of the natural world that is theocentric and anthropocentric—but there is a reverence for all of God’s creations.  Man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission: he is the primary and fundamental way for the Church.


·       A sense that non-human creatures have an intrinsic value even while they have instrumental value (source of food, clothing, and work) to humans.  Inflicting pain on animals or causing their deaths needlessly is an affront to human dignity.  The Earth has its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose.

·       An understanding that humans area obligated to use and care for animals and the Earth respectfully.  In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II includes the world of nature in his respect for life.


·       A Morality which implicates human agency in consequences not only to present but to future generations.  There is a caution against over-consumption.  We should simplify our lifestyle, participate in efforts to protect ecosystems and preserve endangered species, and advance more just distribution of the world’s goods and resources.

·       A view of the human telos as not only God-driven but intertwined with other living beings, the planet, and the cosmos.

·       A life-ethic that prescribes care, prudent use, the exercise of foresight and restraint in environmentally impacting actions and that locates responsibility in the church, community, business, school, professional organizations, individuals, economic systems, and land managers.  Pope John Paul II admonishes humans not to exhaust nonrenewable resources and refrain from activities which pollute the environment